Liyana is a short film that uses a hybrid of oral storytelling and innovative animation to illustrate the plight of Swazi AIDS orphans. Half of the narrative is told by five young Swazi orphans, who collectively weave an epic tale of a resilient girl trying to reunite her family, against daunting odds. This portion uses vibrant, distinctive animation to illustrate the imaginative saga. The rest of the film highlights the challenges faced by the children, especially as a result of the AIDS epidemic, which continues to plague the nation of eSwatini. The latter is done in the candid realism of the storytelling sessions of the child narrators at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage.

Over three weeks in 2010, filmmakers Aaron and Amanda Kopp filmed a workshop held at the orphanage and headed by South African storyteller, activist and actress Gcina Mhlophe. Using the personal experiences of our five orphan narrators, Mhlophe helped them create Liyana, their fierce proxy protagonist, whose struggles are similar to theirs. An orphan herself, Liyana was left bereft when her abusive father died and traffickers abducted her younger twin brothers. This is the genesis of her adventure as she and her trusty bull set out to find her siblings, encountering countless obstacles along the way.

“We had each child sort of having a different version of each scene, so we had to find the narrative through-line there. They would riff off one another and the story would evolve in front of us, which is pretty cool. It was exciting to have the story washing over us as we were filming,” Africa News quoted Aaron as saying.

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“No matter what happened, these kids, just knowing who they are and their vitality and all they’ve been through, we were confident that even though we didn’t know where it was going to end up, it was going to be cool,” Aaron added.

He went on to speak about the lack of authenticity in films depicting African stories but not told by Africans. “There have been a lot of films in Africa made by people who look like us. I think they’ve been incomplete and they tend to focus on a specific kind of narrative. Having grown up there, we knew that wasn’t the whole truth. These kids just exemplify that complexity in a way that I think is pretty compelling,” said Aaron.

Hollywood actress Thandie Newton¸ who is part Zimbabwean and the film’s executive producer, added to this, saying in a statement, “A story like Liyana touched a chord in me. They needed money to finish it, but they also needed a guide to bring it into mainstream media. I was delighted to be that person for them.”

“I know that from the work that I’ve done in Africa, the way to truly help is to give resources. Allow people on the ground to make their own decisions about how they want to tell their stories and have their stories transported around the world.”

The film is an uplifting tale of resilience and defiance against all the odds, teaching us to hope even in impossible situations.

“It’s a hundred percent guaranteed that you will feel that a part of you has healed from watching the film, because it instills that feeling of hope that has been crushed in so many of us,” Newton added.

The film premiered in the United States on 10 October.